The End Is Near

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

Do you remember that cult near San Diego that committed mass suicide about ten years ago? I don't recall all the facts, but it seems they were convinced that there was a space ship hidden behind a comet that was then flying past the Earth, and that this space ship was there to pick up true believers and ferry them off to a better place. So one night they all packed their heads in plastic bags and drifted off to sleep. They never woke. They may have taken poison too, or maybe it was a massive dose of sleeping pills. As I said, I don't really recall all the specific details, but it hardly matters. Such groups all exhibit the same sort of general symptoms.

Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson wrote a now classic book, titled Age of Propaganda; The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, that perfectly describes such remarkably weird though surprisingly common behavior. In fact, they even provide a chapter that tells how you too can become a cult leader in just seven easy steps. And perhaps I ought to emphasize the "easy" part. It doesn't take so much in the way of special talent or extraordinary ability as it does paying attention during a PSYCH 101 class. Follow a few simple rules and you can become the next God.

First of all, create your own reality. You do this by keeping your members away from outsiders. An isolated farm in the middle of Idaho is good, but if such a retreat isn't available, impose a form of self-censorship. If it's not of the cult, it's of the devil. Then set the leader and his/her inner circle up as the link to paradise. Members talk to them and they talk directly to God. Make increasing demands. Start small, of course, but keep it going and eventually you have them standing in line to turn over all their worldly possessions. Keep turning out stories about the greatness of the leader. The more unbelievable the more they will be believed. Your members will have already been conditioned from the time they were children to accept things like sons of God coming back from the dead and walking on water for good measure. Remember to use your converts to try and bring in still more converts. This has the double advantage of possibly picking up some newbies, but even if that doesn't happen, the mere act of proselytizing will further cement the commitment of those already in the fold. Keep everybody busy. This doesn't allow time for potentially critical thought. Let the minds of the masses wander and who knows, they might put two and two together. For this reason, long sermons - the longer the better - and interminable work shifts are essential. And when you aren't haranguing them and they aren't being kept busy - make sure they're at least singing. And finally, keep your flock fixated on the carrot. The payoff is just around the corner and only they will be the ones paid off. The clouds will part and they will be raptured up and then, boy-oh-boy, won't all those non-believers be sorry.

Keep in mind, however, that because the main difference between a cult and a religion is about 200 years, you're not going to live long enough to see your divinity firmly established in the minds of your followers. But that hardly matters. You can start enjoying all the benefits (money, sex, and power) of being above and beyond mere mortals in hardly any time at all. Just think about the wacko in Waco, and the guy out in the middle of the jungle with that lethal Kool-Aid. Clearly it's not that hard to gather a group eager to join you in jumping off the roof. And if a plunge into the abyss is not part of your plan, you can always enjoy riding in your limo while wringing bucks out of losers living in their junk vans.

And now for the best part. There are whole bunches of people out there - a truly surprising portion of the population - who will not be talked out of joining you. At this very moment, polls show that almost 50% of Americans believe Christ will soon arrive in a Second Coming. Something like 20% (that's one out of five if you're not to swift with math), are convinced it will happen in their lifetime. Think of fruit ready to fall from the tree.

All this is nothing new. Years ago, a young psychology student decided to investigate an End of the World cult by going undercover and pretending to be a card carrying initiate. Since he was treating this as a legitimate bit of research, he had to be careful never to lead the group - never to influence the flow of events. This caused him some concern when the granfalloon called him up before the assembly and ordered him to close his eyes and visualize the paradise to which they would all be headed in short order. What do you see, he was asked. Uncertain of how best to answer, he waited a long time before finally admitting that he saw nothing. That's not nothing you fool, said an increasingly impatient and now clearly irritated granfalloon, that's The Void!

But what happens when a definite date is set and it's right around the corner - what happens when the prophecy fails? Obviously, a guy with a TV congregation isn't going to be silly enough to put it all on the line. Like any psychic worth his crystal ball, he's going to be vague enough about the future to be able to claim credit for whatever happens. But in this case, the day came and the hour drew near. People who had left their families, walked away from their jobs, given up all their money, waited and watched the clock and waited some more. A few minutes past the appointed time, they began to wonder if maybe the clock was wrong. Consternation grew until it was announced that the faith of the group was such that the End had been averted. They were told they saved the world. And they bought it. Later it was pointed out that the original world really had ended - but in another dimension and here they were, alive and well, on a parallel planet. Phew - that was a close one!

Look At It This Way

Human Beings are hard wired to believe. In fact, the more you annoy them with reason the more their faith will grow. An otherwise obvious fact will become nothing but a test of their faith - the work of the devil. Show a Creationist a fossil and he'll tell you Satan planted it to mislead the gullible. Interestingly enough, evolution may well be responsible for this apparent lack of logic. Let me explain. Remember the last time you and your dog were sitting by the fire and some snow dropped off the roof with a crash? The dog went wild but eventually calmed down and forgot the whole thing. Both of you were startled at first and both of you took up a defensive stance. All mammals react the same way. You knew exactly what had happened so you calmed down too. But what if the cause of the crash wasn't so readily apparent? The dog would once again calm down after hearing no further sound. You, on the other hand, would remain on alert - assuming some potentially powerful agent was responsible.

Biological evolution has built this into our bodies, while cultural evolution has built a make-believe and all-powerful agent into our minds to account for all the things that go bump in the night. The priests and the granfalloons serve as our bridge to that agent. They serve a necessary function to all those who would feel bewildered and defenseless without them. It's true that you pay with your intellect but just look at how calmly that dog is once again asleep by the fire.

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